Co-Executive Director Heidi Powell is a Nerdy Book Blogger

Co-Executive Director Heidi Powell reflected on her connection to books and the origins of this nonprofit as a guest blogger for Nerdy Book Club this August. Please enjoy her article, the text of which appears below:

Authors, Illustrators Share Their Talents, Pass On Their Love of Reading, Then Pass Out Their Books, by Heidi Powell

I’ve shared my love of reading in expected and unexpected ways.  When I was young I book-talked with friends (before I even knew what book-talking was), participated in book clubs, and volunteered and then worked at the local library. Years later, I picked up where I’d left off and became a page at another library—only this time I was married with three young children.

Then came the unexpected: despite my background in city planning I was hired as a bookseller in the Children & Teens Department at Politics & Prose, a large independent bookstore in Washington, D.C.  It was there that I became friends with Dara La Porte, the department’s manager.  After years of hosting author events for and recommending books to our young neighborhood customers, we continued to struggle with the fact that the vast majority of local students were unable to attend the store’s author events or purchase the books.  We knew that all children should have the opportunity to watch as an illustrator draws a famous character or clutch a book signed by the person who wrote it.

When we spoke with teachers and librarians about the concept of a foundation that would bring authors and illustrators to their schools and provide books for their students, classrooms and libraries their response was unanimously positive.  Authors, illustrators and publishers were equally enthusiastic.  We used that positive energy to create An Open Book Foundation (AOB), a nonprofit that allows us to share our love of books and their creators with children and teens throughout the entire D.C. area.

Our idea was simple: promote literacy by connecting authors, illustrators, and their books to students in low-income settings.  Every student attending the event would get a signed copy of the author’s/illustrator’s book to take home.  In addition, we would give a set of the author’s/illustrator’s books to the classroom and school libraries.  After the presentation, the author or illustrator would chat with each student and sign his or her book.

Our dream became a reality when a generous individual liked our idea and gave us the seed money we needed to launch An Open Book.

We began taking authors to schools in the fall of 2011.  That fall we hosted events in 11 schools and gave away over 1,000 books to students in kindergarten through 12th grade.  Today AOB serves students in over 125 D.C. area public and public charter schools as well as community service organizations.  This school year we gave away nearly 10,000 books.  Over 100 authors and illustrators participate in our programs, generously waiving their speaking fees.  And they keep coming back!  Not only do they reach out to AOB whenever they’re in the D.C. area, they tell their author and illustrator friends about us and encourage them to volunteer too.  It’s a rewarding experience for everyone involved.

Initially, we thought every event should include lots of children and give away lots of books, so we scheduled large assemblies in school gyms or “cafetoriums.”  We soon realized that presenting to large groups isn’t for everyone.  In fact, it’s for very few.  Most authors and illustrators—and students—prefer an audience of 25-30 students in the classroom or library.  The smaller group size and more intimate setting foster interaction and participation: Gary Schmidt and Padma Venkatramen have led writing workshops, Ben Hatke, Don Tate, and Liz Zunon have created art for and with students.

Authors and illustrators often integrate music, movement and other arts activities into their presentations to enrich the experience of learning about their books.  As you’ll see in our YouTube video, Kwame Alexander uses call-and-response with small children; Salina Yoon practices mime with a young student; and Taye Diggs and Shane Evans encourage children to strum a guitar.

Every author event and every audience is unique, although they have some things in common.  Typically students learn about how art, stories, and books are made.  Authors and illustrators talk about their creative lives.  Writers share their notebooks containing their initial idea scribbles, their piles of drafts with editors’ bright red comments, and reams of rejection letters.  Authors compare the editor’s role in their writing and rewriting process to that of the students’ teacher.

Meeting an author sparks students’ interest in the book and in the author’s other titles.  School librarians report a robust circulation of books by authors and illustrators who have visited their school.  In addition, meeting an author or illustrator encourages students to consider careers in writing or fine arts by allowing them to meet people who can and do earn a living by doing what they love.  And each student leaves with a signed book in hand and new or renewed energy about books and reading.

An Open Book authors and illustrators often serve as mirrors for students.  Only one in eight children’s books published in 2016 were by authors of color (Cooperative Children’s Book Center) but over a quarter of AOB authors and illustrators are people of color whose books reflect the students’ lives and experiences.  Students are empowered by meeting authors and illustrators who look like them, speak their first language, or have similar childhood experiences. Local author Jason Reynolds engages with students by sharing his own experiences growing up in D.C.  Jorge Argueta, Juana Medina and Duncan Tonatiuh present their work in Spanish or English, or both!

In addition to facilitating author events, AOB staff members are dedicated to promoting literacy in several ways.  Our education director works closely with educators to create reader response and arts integration activities in conjunction with author events; staff lead monthly in-school and after-school book clubs; and AOB provides, stocks, and maintains Little Free Libraries at five schools.

We are passionate about our mission and constantly work to improve our programs, develop partnerships and extend our reach to share our love of books, stories and art, and the craft of creating them.  Every child whose eyes light up when he meets an author or realizes she gets to take a book home makes us more committed to making books truly accessible to everyone.